Early Terrible wine bar a funky-casual winner

Note: Since March, in recognition of the extraordinary challenges faced by restaurants during the coronavirus pandemic, Susie Davidson Powell’s reports on the dining scene have been presented with the label “Critic’s Notebook.”  With indoor dining reopened for more than three months locally and more restaurants again offering full-service meals at full price, Powell’s return to reviewing will assess the dining experience even as restaurants operate with state-mandated restrictions in place. Starting today, review-style assessments will bear the label “Matters of Taste. Should state-mandated dining restrictions tighten once more, or if a particular week’s piece is a dining round-up or thematic essay , it will feature as a Critic’s Notebook.

If your hopes of flying to warmer climes are being dashed with every coronavirus spike, you’re not alone. But if you’re looking for casual food with a vibe, Early Terrible in Woodstock is here to help. With an identity built around craft cocktails, kitchen snacks and a clublike playlist, Early Terrible — its name chosen with unconsidered whimsicality — is by design a multisensory experience.

Relaxing in plain sight as you drive through town, Early Terrible slopes back from the road and banks steeply up on one side to its sibling curio, The Mud Club, an earnestly sustainable coffee bar. A shared lawn dotted with fire pits and hulking rock-slab tables uses thick beams, repurposed antique furniture and stacked Catskill bluestone as stationary seats — ideal for today’s spatially distancing crowd.

Winding gravel paths lit by street lamps and kerosene heaters lend a vaguely Asian air and lead down to a rustic, wood-clad bar transformed from its former role as a lawyer’s office by the Ballinger family, Canadians with deep ties to New York’s hospitality and entertainment industries. Father and son Douglas and Nicolas Ballinger physically transformed Early Terrible and The Mud Club, while Nicolas’ brother Gray, who worked at the family-owned music venue Webster Hall in Manhattan and brought The People’s Pub to Chatham, is behind the scenes. Extended family own The Stewart House in Athens and The City Beer Hall in Albany.

With patrons spaced in patient twos and threes like abacus beads, a line trails from the outdoor bar built into the porch beneath the branches of a tree strung with lights. It’s a slow scene. Cocktails take time to build, and bartenders taking food orders briefly call a temporary halt for a kitchen backed up from a slammed Saturday afternoon.

We head inside to the main bar where — and this is important — your carefully mixed drinks are served not in plastic but cut glass. Eyes are drawn to sprawling roots of a massive tree stump bolted to the back wall and to rows of antique farm saws and industrial metal rope chains. Two Chesterfield leather sofas anchoring the room are speckled in the square blue light reflecting off a still disco ball; wrought-iron French doors are flung open on a canopied porch, where crystal chandeliers dangle from branches woven overhead and couples perch on stools at a narrow wraparound porch.

Early Terrible is undeniably driven by sound. If you’ve ever been to beach bars in Ibiza or Tulum, you know the centrality of a chill, pulsing soundtrack in fostering a mellow mood. Here, coordinated heads nod to a global playlist that slips from Diplo and Blond:ish to Soleil Levant and Miguel Bastida. Beautiful bartenders muddle tart blackberries in a lemon-spiked gin Bramble and rosemary in a frothy whiskey sour. There’s a short list of canned craft beers, natural wines priced reasonably by the glass and daily specials, including a charred jalapeno and pineapple margarita, which sounds delicious but is already sold out. With flaming heat lamps subbing for tiki torches, Early Terrible would look equally at home on an island beach if you transplanted the whole scene. Not a bad impression on a COVID-stranded Saturday night.

Saunter around back and you’ll find tables and a lengthy Dalmatian-style grill, where chefs Roberto Noel-Berman and Alexander Geudelekian fire up burgers that spit fat, sending flames high. We move inside and curl up on the sofas as our plates leave the kitchen in spurts: a toasted three-cheese quesadilla with fork-torn grilled chicken, vegan lentil soup with kale, a grass-fed burger dressed simply with L.T.O. and house-made pickles, and crunchy mushroom crostini, the chewy mushrooms lightly scorched in a soy-ginger glaze.

With pandemic restrictions stuck in place and winter coming, Gray Ballinger describes plans in the works: The Mud Club has a wood-fired bagel oven hand-built by Ontario master stove-maker Alex Chernov, and at the end of the month Early Terrible will offer seven wood-fired sourdough pizzas on Saturdays, when the oven is hot from a day of baking bagels. They are betting their sourdough — with a four-day fermentation process — will earn the popular vote for pizza, whether for eating in, to go or delivery. Meanwhile, by mid-November they hope to have built modular cabanas that can be bulked up or stripped down seasonally, along with a treehouse and Esopus-style cabin to expand winter seating. Of course, their season-long firepits and lawn seats will make Canadians of us all.

The Early Terrible sign close to the road promises “drinks intellectual nourishment magic” in grammar-free script. For those feeling their wings have been clipped, they’re right.

Susie Davidson Powell is a British freelance food writer in upstate New York. Follow her on Twitter, @SusieDP

Early Terrible Wine Bar 

Address: 45 Mill Hill Road, Woodstock
Hours: 3 p.m. to midnight Thursday and Friday; weekends, 1 p.m. to midnight 
Contact: 845-684-7226; earlyterrible.com

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